Failure Explored

C James Fagan on the latest performance piece at the Bluecoat asks, what is failure anyway?

Failure, that twin impostor of success. The thing which is always at our side, waiting to take charge of whatever endeavour we undertake. Surely, like success, it’s a temporary fleeting thing gone in a moment, the moment being the absence of one or the other twin. Who defines failure? Is it measured in the blank-faced stare of an audience, the lack of significant other? Does a measurement of failure matter? What does it all mean when one of our contemporary ‘heroes’ lives by the motto: ‘You tried and failed, the lesson is to never try.’

These are the questions posed by Mary Pearson in her piece Failure (& other opportunities for non-linear success). Tonight I’m stood behind her as she directly addresses the audience gathered outside the performance space with these questions. In a bright and cheerful manner she requests that we think about the state of our careers, love lives and even our physical appearance. We are requested to pick up a number of kidney beans to represent our unfulfilled achievements, the thought ‘aren’t we here to forget those things’ passes through my mind.

More kidney beans await us, they sit like a little pile of disappointments in the middle of the stage, flanked by a plinth and what looks like a dressing room. Mary begins to work the stage, moving through movements that range from the practiced glamour of a show girl to the serious shapes of contemporary dance. She then proceeds to stamp on the pile of beans. It’s the start of a process which results in the pile being shaped into a heart. In the centre of the heart is Mary (pictured).

From the heart she begins to sing. A song which seems to be culled from different songs, as the words are sentimental, tinged with that celebratory aspiration that only seems to exist during the three minutes of a pop song. After that sequence she bounds onto the plinth to deliver a series of accusations, most of which seem to be underpinned by self-doubt, directed at herself as much as the audience.

Getting off the plinth she steps over to the ‘dressing room’ where she adorns a pair of sparkly high heels, then constricts herself by tying her legs and arms up in pretty pink bows. Before adding a tiara and finally adding an eye patch; no more ridiculous signifiers of attractiveness than the heels or tiara. Dressed in her finery she totters into the centre of the heart, announcing that she can’t free herself of this self-image, before falling to the floor and removing herself from this construction of beauty.

“They sit like a little pile of disappointments in the middle of the stage”

The heart is circled. Mary then proclaims that she needs 15 men, she scans the audience making judgements on which the men stand or fall. I am one of the ‘winners’ selected to help with the next stage of the performance. Each is given a squirty bottle and straw hat with instructions to gather round the circle with eyes closed and await our cue. On opening my eyes I see that Mary has undressed, or at least taken of her jeans, and is now gracefully writhing in the circle of kidney beans. All sound-tracked by the imagined, often negative, criticisms of the audience. This sequence would be familiar to anyone who witnessed her performance during the If Only…! event a few months ago.

The main difference being this time is in context, with the presence of a larger, seated audience. In the previous performance when standing over Mary listening to the criticisms I had a sensation of guilt, of complicity in enabling success or failure. The presence of a larger audience dissipates this sensation. I want to consider my role in Mary’s world but she is finished with us and chases us away with a duck call.

She then returns to the plinth to give a speech which deals with the disappointing unavoidable process of ageing. After this Mary slips behind a screen, where we see her in silhouette, struggling to get changed, a moment given a sense of unfulfilled expectation by the looping of the intro of The Who’s Baba O’Riley. This is a clever device, giving Mary the opportunity to expose herself without exposing herself.

Mary emerges from behind the screen. Dressed in evening wear (price tag still attached) she sits on the plinth and begins to sing. The subject of the song is herself and her attributes, and is embedded with a sense of inverted confidence. And with the help of a loop station, the song becomes a duet of one.

Once she’s completed this Ballad of Mary, there’s only one thing left to do: dance! Tracing a path through the kidney beans (now scattered across the stage), she dances to her own song miming the supposed achievements of life. I haven’t mentioned Mary’s dancing, despite this being a dance piece, her mixture of grace and slapstick, displays a confidence and understanding in moving her body, a confidence which underpins the whole performance.

Finally Mary places the plinth in the centre of the stage and reveals the secret of the kidney beans. She suggests that we try and grow the beans – not all of them will grow but some will. At the end, the dead eyed euphoric beats of We Are Young by Fun begins to play, and Mary triumphantly mimes along. Fist-pumping into the air in an action at once celebratory and mocking before crowd surfacing; it’s like the ending of so many teen movies where the boy gets the girl, wins the match, destroys the Death Star, as the happy music swells.

I wasn’t quite expecting this ending, like Mary it has a charm and warmth to it. I do wonder if this charm is deflecting some of the bitterness associated with failing, or whether it simply addresses the fact that failure is just another way of reaching success. The message seems to be that failure is the way we push ourselves on, to better ourselves and only we can really define that, and ultimately, failure is an option.

C James Fagan

Image courtesy Mark Loudon

Posted on 13/06/2012 by thedoublenegative